Development and storms continue to fell many large trees in neighborhoods and along roadways. Unfortunately, homeowners and government entities have been replacing the felled trees, which are typically large native species such as oaks, elms, sycamores, pines, and beech trees, with smaller ornamentals (e.g., bradford pears, kwanzan cherries, weeping cherries, Japanese cutleaf maples). The shift in tree species to shorter, non-native trees drastically changes the ecology (i.e., food web and canopy height) of an area and has climate change implications.
The planting of non-native ornamentals drastically reduces the food available for birds (Tallamy 2009). For example, a vast number of native moth and butterfly caterpillars will only eat the leaves of native shrubs and trees (i.e., they co-evolved together). Since 96% of terrestrial North American birds raise their young on a diet of insect protein, there will be more food and hence more birds if there are native trees in a given area. Not only is the oak tree the National Tree, it is also the top ranked tree for supporting moths and butterfly species (a total of 532 different species). In stark contrast, the pear tree (Pyrus spp.) only supports 138 species of moths and butterflies (Tallamy 2009). Both the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and native oaks (Quercus spp.) are in the 20 most valuable species of woody plants in terms of their ability to support wildlife (Tallamy 2009). Beeches and oaks also both produce high protein seeds that are critical components of many creature’s diets. With a 29% drop in bird populations in the United States and Canada since 1970, signifying 2.9 billion birds lost in almost 50 years, the need for planting native large trees is further underscored (Rosenberg et al. 2019).
Birds of prey are best off with large trees. Fewer large trees means less nesting habitat potential for large birds including owls, hawk, osprey and bald eagles. Historically, ospreys built their bulky stick nests atop trees throughout the North Fork. While some continue to use natural nest sites, many have shifted to nesting on artificial structures due to the loss of trees (and development of the shoreline). Bald eagles are starting to recolonize the East End, creating their nests in mature tall trees. According to the non-profit Journey North, the bald eagle builds the largest nest of any North American bird, up to 13 feet deep, over 8 feet wide, and can weigh over 2,200 pounds.
Climate Change Implications
Large trees store more carbon, offsetting climate change. The earth’s climate is changing and will eventually destabilize life on earth, leading to massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, epic flooding, failing economies, and mass human migrations. Although this trajectory is nearly impossible to avert, we have a strong practical and ethical responsibility to reduce carbon emissions (Franzen 2019). Doing at least something will make the immediate effects of climate change less severe and will postpone the point of no return (i.e., the global mean temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius where the world will become self transforming according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists) (Franzen 2019).
Low tech conservation actions like carbon sequestration by planting trees (and more large trees like oaks and beech) can reduce our carbon footprint as effectively as mass industrial changes (Bastin et al. 2019). Under projected climate change scenarios for the northeast, it seems that white oaks will fair best of all oak species. White oaks are actually expected to increase in geographic range and are expected to be highly adaptable (Janowiak et al. in review).
Oaks Make Good Street Trees
White oaks (Quercus alba) continue to be planted throughout the northeast as street trees, including in New York City. According to the NYCDOT Street Design Manual, Updated Second Edition (2015), white oak (Quercus alba) is a street tree that has been successfully employed along arterial roadways (Table 6E Arterial Planting Recommendations, page 225). According to the Yale Street Tree Characteristic Chart, all of the following oaks are drought tolerant, salt tolerant, native to the northeast, and suitable for planting along streets:
– white oak (Quercus alba)
– red oak (Quercus rubra)
– pin oak (Quercus palustris)
– scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
Large native trees add to the character of a neighborhood, provide food and refuge for birds, and even help curb climate change. Planting trees is an easy way to make our lives better, and compounds with every year of growth!
Bastin, Jean-François & Finegold, Yelena & Garcia, Claude & Mollicone, Danilo & Rezende, Marcelo & Routh, Devin & Zohner, Constantin & Crowther, Thomas. (2019) The global tree restoration potential. Science. 365. 76-79. 10.1126/science.aax0848.
Franzen, Jonathan (2019) What if We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it. The New Yorker. Published online September 8, 2019.
Janowiak et al. in review. New England and New York forest ecosystem vulnerability assessment and synthesis: a report from the New England Climate Change Response Framework. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.
Rosenberg, K. V., Adriaan M. Dokter, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith, Jessica C. Stanton, Arvind Panjabi, Laura Helft, Michael Parr, and Peter P. Marra (2019) Decline of the North American avifauna. Science. doi:10.1126/science.aaw1313
Tallamy, Douglas (2009) Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Timber Press.